Andy Dalton aired the ball out, Giovani Bernard punched the ball in, and the defense spent its night terrorizing Ben Roethlisberger, as the Cincinnati Bengals pulled away in the second half to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 20-10, in this week's Monday Night Football matchup.
The scoreboard may indicate a 10-point margin, but the fans at Paul Brown Stadium were witness to a far different narrative. Cincinnati outgained Pittsburgh 407-278 in total yards, beat them 22-14 on first downs, and easily won time of possession (35:34 to 24:26) in a contest that saw the Bengals dominate in nearly every aspect of the game.
Dalton in particular exorcised his career-long demons against his AFC North rivals. The third-year quarterback, who had a 1-3 record against the Steelers heading in, provided a steadying presence and picked his spots against a game Pittsburgh secondary to lead the Bengals to victory.
He threw for 280 yards on 25-of-45 passing—far and away his high watermark versus Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Pittsburgh left Dalton flustered in each of their previous two meetings in Cincy, as he threw for a combined 275 yards and three interceptions.
This time, though, it was clear Marvin Lewis wanted to get his quarterback some confidence from the outset. Dalton threw the ball 32 times in the first half compared to only 10 runs, connecting on an early 61-yard throw to Tyler Eifert that helped get the ball rolling on offense.
Bernard would punch the ball in from seven yards out two plays later, giving the Bengals a 7-3 lead with just under a minute to go in the first quarter. It was a sign of things to come for Bernard.
Explosive catching the ball and running, the second-round pick out of North Carolina concluded his second career game with 65 total yards (on just nine touches) and both Cincinnati scores. His 27-yard scamper to paydirt on a screen play in the middle of the third served as the game's winning score.
Not to be outdone, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis who served as the closer. Running with a purpose, the Law Firm finished with 75 yards on 22 carries, pounding a gassed Steelers defense into the ground to close out the game.
In a game where just about everything went right for the Bengals offense, you couldn't say the same for the team on the opposing sideline.
For the second straight week, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley should hear many questions and criticism about his toothless attack. Roethlisberger saw pressure from the likes of Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson the entire evening, scurrying his way around the pocket en route to finishing with 251 yards (20-of-37) and a touchdown against an interception.
The pick, which happened late in the fourth quarter, came on a tipped pass after yet another pressure from the Cincinnati defensive line. Dominating at the point of attack, the Bengals left the Steelers with little to no room to move the ball. A great deal of Roethlisberger's passing total came in relative garbage time.
Felix Jones, who stepped in for an injured Isaac Redman, carried the ball only 10 times and finished with a nondescript 37 yards.
In a game where Cincinnati dominated, one thing was almost its undoing: penalties. The Bengals committed nine fouls, resulting in 84 yards lost and much momentum continually sapped out of their driving attack. A holding penalty on Jermaine Gresham in the third quarter negated an 11-yard run from Bernard that would have put the Bengals at midfield after just three plays, resulting in a drive-halting 1st-and-20 instead.
That was just one instance; multiple drives were put in long yardage situations thanks to avoidable mistakes. The result could have been much worse.
Also lost in the shuffle was James Harrison, whose presence in this game carried the narrative coming in. Harrison was playing in his first game against his former team after spending his first nine seasons in Pittsburgh.
Although he was the subject of ESPN's conversation with Jon Gruden and spoke longingly of his time with the Steelers, Harrison was a secondary character on Monday night. He finished the game without recording a tackle or any other defensive statistic.
Still, it's safe to say Harrison is undoubtedly happy to be wearing orange and black at the moment.
Ben Roethlisberger (QB, Pittsburgh Steelers): C-
Although much of Roethlisberger’s disappointing night rests on his offensive line’s struggles, he wasn’t very effective when given the time to throw. Sixty-four of his 251 yards came on a meaningless final drive, where the Bengals played soft zone and allowed all the underneath completions Pittsburgh desired.
On downs that mattered, Roethlisberger was shaky for the second straight week. He sailed balls over the heads of open receivers, held balls that led to unnecessary hits and missed receivers on open reads.
Two Super Bowls and a decade into his career, Roethlisberger won’t be hearing catcalls for his benching anytime soon. But the Steelers are going to need him to play like a Pro Bowler if they hope to rectify their offensive woes.
Troy Polamalu (S, Pittsburgh Steelers)
On a night where nearly everything went wrong for Pittsburgh, Polamalu was at his best. The oft-injured safety looked healthier than he's been at any point in the past couple seasons, hitting the Bengals offensive line hard on blitzes and preventing receivers from gaining yards after the catch.
Talent has never been the question with Polamalu; it's always been health. If Monday night is a sign of things to come for this season, the Steelers may have their defensive anchor back in full force.
Giovani Bernard (RB, Cincinnati Bengals): B+
He may not have been the man Lewis trusted to finish off the Steelers, but Bernard’s work in the first three quarters was just as critical. Bernard gives the Cincinnati backfield an explosiveness it lacks with Green-Ellis, getting to the second level and somehow turning broken plays into gains.
The fourth quarter probably proved Green-Ellis isn’t going anywhere. Lewis time and again has stayed loyal to his players, and Green-Ellis is a steady, veteran force.
But if Bernard continues looking like this, the Bengals may have to consider more of a timeshare situation than they already have.
Michael Johnson (DE, Cincinnati Bengals)
It’s not too often that Geno Atkins is the second-best player on his defensive line. Monday was one of those rare occasions.
Speed rushing on the outside, Johnson was most often the one wreaking havoc on Roethlisberger. He finished with two quarterback hits, a tipped pass and hurried the Steelers quarterback plenty of other times.
His ascent into one of the better young defensive ends of the game has stayed relatively quiet. Roethlisberger heard it. Loud and Clear.
|Felix Jones (RB)||C-|
|Emmanuel Sanders (WR)||B+|
|Antonio Brown (WR)||C+|
|LaMarr Woodley (LB)||C+|
|Ike Taylor (CB)||B|
|Andy Dalton (QB)||A-|
|BenJarvus Green-Ellis (RB)||B|
|A.J. Green (WR)||C+|
|Vontaze Burfict (LB)||B|
|Adam Jones (CB)||C|
|Geno Atkins (DT)||B-|
Player of the Game
Andy Dalton (QB, Cincinnati Bengals)
With two playoff games and as many losses under his belt, there has been some swelling criticism about Dalton's ceiling as a passer. The narrative goes that he's too good for your team to be horrible but not good enough to lead you to a championship—the Matt Schaub of the midwest.
Monday night saw a bit of both Daltons.
Dalton had only 165 yards on his 32 attempts in the first half, dinking and dunking on the throws he completed and sometimes sailing balls on ones he didn't. It's safe to say that Jay Gruden, the Bengals offensive coordinator, went into halftime thankful his protege didn't cough the ball up once or twice.
In the second half, the volume took a nosedive—right as the efficiency went upward. Dalton completed nine of his 13 passes in the final two quarters, clipping the Steelers for an additional 115 yards on less than half as many throws. He connected in particular with Jermaine Gresham in the second half, who had six catches for 66 yards.
Poised and efficient against a heated rival, these are the type of performances the Bengals will need in January. It'll just be interesting to see whether this is the sign he'll finally be able to deliver.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: